Economic anthropology: Summary

Economic anthropology languished for decades, a victim of influential paradigms that would deny its right to exist. On the one hand, there are those who approach all human behaviour with the help of economic models grounded in some form of “rational choice” theory. Some in this camp, perceiving the shortcomings of narrow economic models, emphasize instead the role of institutions in solving coordination problems. The history of these institutions is then explained in terms of their evolutionary efficiency. There is a close affinity between these approaches (usually known respectively as “neoclassical” and “new institutionalist”). Rejecting the reductionism of such approaches, many socio-cultural anthropologists deny the very existence of “economy”. From this point of view, meeting material needs should not be distinguished from other needs, which are inextricably tied to society and culture in general.

Developing a middle ground position between economics and culturalist camp, the Department has been committed to developing economic anthropology as an intellectual community, and even as a fully-fledged discipline (Hann and Hart 2011). Such a renewal is especially timely in decades of global capitalist crisis. We utilize the theories and methods of anthropology, but we encourage engagement with economics, mainstream as well as heterodox, from the perspective of an institutionalist social science. By this we have in mind an older institutionalism does not reduce the world to a functionalist logic. Rather, it examines how economic life shapes and is shaped by other fields, from the state to new media technologies, from law to religion and ritual. As fieldworkers, we pay particular attention to institutions at the micro level of society, which tend to be neglected by other researchers, especially the house(hold) and the local community. We question whether the theories and methods developed in Western social science on the basis (mostly) of Western evidence can be generalised to changing economies and societies in other parts of the world.

Our perspective is also firmly historical and comparativist. In moving beyond microstudies, we draw not only on anthropological concepts such as that of “culture area” but also on contributions from historians, sociologists and economists. Colleagues in these fields have often been more active than anthropologists in exploring the nature of economic life in socialist and postsocialist societies, where many of the Department’s projects have been based.

Chris Hann has been pursuing this agenda with like-minded colleagues for many years. His first research initiative at the Max Planck Institute was devoted to "property relations", with a focus on decollectivization in the rural sector after socialim. In 2006, Hann and Keith Hart convened a multi-disciplinary conference in Halle devoted to the contemporary significance of Karl Polanyi, and in particular of his masterpiece, The Great Transformation. This led to two publications: Hann and Hart 2009, Hann and Hart 2011. During his Fellowship at the Nantes Institute of Advanced Study in 2013-4 he resumed work on "Repatriating Polanyi", a project that demonstrates the pertinence of a Polanyian approach to postsocialist Eastern Europe and to the Eurasian past more generally (Hann 2014, 2015, 2019).

Later collaborations have included work with Stephen Gudeman to investigate relationships between Economy and Ritual in a range of postsocialist societies (2009-2012; see Gudeman and Hann 2015a, 2015b); with Catherine Alexander and Jonathan Parry on the project Industry and Inequality in Eurasia (2012-2015; see Hann and Parry 2018); and with Don Kalb on the project Financialization (2015-2019; see Hann and Kalb 2020). Each of these teams was built around a core group of six postdoctoral researchers. In addition to the chapters published by team members and associates in our Berghahn Books series Max Planck Studies in Anthropology and Economy, regular updates on all of these projects can be found in the reports prepared for the institute's Advisory Board (


Gudeman, S. and Hann, C. (eds.). 2015a. "Economy and Ritual. Studies of Postsocialist Transformations". New York: Berghahn.

Gudeman, S. and Hann, C. (eds.). 2015b. "Oikos and Market. Explorations in Self-Sufficency after Socialism". New York: Berghahn.

Hann, C. 2014. "The Economistic Fallacy and Forms of Integration during and after Socialism". Economy and Society 43 (4): 626-49.

Hann, C. 2015. "Goody, Polanyi and Eurasia: an unfinished project in comparative historical economic anthropology". History and Anthropology 26 (3): 308-20.

Hann, C. 2019. "Repatriating Polanyi: market society in the Visegrád states". Budapest, New York: CEU Press.

Hann, C. and K. Hart. 2011. "Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique". Cambridge: Polity.

Hann, C. and K. Hart (eds.). 2009. "Market and Society: The Great Transformation Today". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hann, C. and D. Kalb (eds.). 2020. "Financialization: relational approaches". New York: Berghahn.

Hann, C. and J. Parry (eds.). 2018. "Industrial labor on the margins of capitalism. Precarity, class, and the neoliberal subject". New York: Berghahn.

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